Saturday, April 21, 2012

North Korea’s prison camps: The gulag behind the goose-steps

April 21, 2012

Looking down on members of a 1.1m-strong army that applauded his every remark, Kim Jong Un giggled with delight during the centenary on April 15th of the birth of his late grandfather, Kim Il Sung. The contrast with his unsmiling father, Kim Jong Il, who died in December, could not have been clearer.

Unlike his father, the mop-haired Mr Kim spoke directly to the nation, in a resonant voice that masked the monotony of his message. His regime invited international television crews to film the festivities. Unexpectedly, it admitted that a mission to put a satellite into orbit in honour of his grandfather had failed. It all made for good television, and some commentators claimed to detect signals from the young ruler of a new openness in the regime.

Yet fresh reports in recent weeks about the victims of repression in North Korea are a reminder of how ruthless the dictatorship still is. It insists that “political prisoner” is not in its vocabulary. Yet growing numbers flee persecution. According to David Hawk of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, some 23,000 recently escaped North Koreans now live in South Korea. They include hundreds of former political and other prisoners. They bring with them harrowing tales of the brutality they have suffered.

Their stories have enabled Mr Hawk to update The Hidden Gulag, which first shed light on the slave-labour conditions in North Korea in 2003. The new edition provides testimony starting in 1970 about different types of forced-labour camps: the kwan-li-so for political prisoners, from which there is usually no release; the kyo-hwa-so penitentiaries mostly for those serving out sentences as common criminals; and detention centres for those forcibly repatriated from China. All appear to involve mistreatment that frequently ends in death. In the detention centres near China, North Korean women suspected of being made pregnant by Han Chinese are subject to forced abortions, the report says. (The state preaches an extreme gospel of racial purity.)